Raising the Bar
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Bob Corran steps in as Vermont's new athletic director on June 16, but he's already got his hands full, looking for a new women's basketball coach and new men's ice hockey coach.
There is no shortage of great candidates, however. And former coach Mike Gilligan is staying on to help the transitition, and will remain on campus to help fund raising for a potential new facility.
Corran, whose background is in hockey as a player and coach before he turned to the administrative side as athletic director — at the University of Calgary and, most recently at Minnesota-Duluth — is sifting through quality candidates, excited about the idea of "increased resources" for the hockey program, which new president Daniel Fogel has pledged.
AW: Hockey is the so-called signature sport at Vermont. How do you, as a "hockey guy" juggle that with the needs of all the sports, so that they don't think they're getting overlooked.
Bob Corran: Minnesota-Duluth is similar. Hockey is the engine, that's what drives this place, but one of the things that our staff and university is particularly proud of here is we've been able to elevate the competetive level of the men's programs fairly significantly, and we've established the highest competitive level for the women's program. Yet all our other sports have been [successful]. Every other team here won the conference championship or conference tournament championship. So we've been able to do that, despite the fact that there's this perception that hockey is more important.
But fact of the matter is, hockey is very important to us, but that doesn't diminsish the importance of anything else.
AW: There's talk of adding resources to hockey at Vermont, and some question whether a school should make that such a priority. What do you say to the people who ask why athletics is such a big deal?
BC: Universities are about excellence. I think where you have leadership that really is about excellence that it's difficult to pick and choose [and say], 'We'll be excellent here but mediocrity is fine elsewhere.' I think it's really healthy for the institution in every way, where excelence really does become part of the institutional culture where it really permeates right across the board. It raises expectations, standards and performance levels in every part of the institution, and when that happens, it simply becomes a better place.
Given the profile athletics has, what it can do for the institution at the national and regional levels, that's very positive. It builds bridges with the community, with alumni, with donors ... it's the front porch. It often provides people with their entre to the institution. Then they find out so much else about the place. ... So it really can have a very positive impact on all aspects of the institution.
AW: What kinds of things are we talking about when we say "increased resources?"
BC: Certainly a philsophy, an attitude, a vision. Everything has to start with that vision. If your vision is one that really stretches the current circumstance or situation, that's a good indicator that there's more to come. Certainly we're seeing with president Fogel that he has an institutional vision that's really broad reaching and progressive and really wants to move the institution. He's translated that into a management strategy that the trustees have really endorsed. So I think there's a real acceptance and support for what he wants to do globally by the trustees. So that's a real solid indicator that this is not simply a document that's going to sit and the historians will pour over years from now and wonder what happened. It's something which has a life and has already been translated at the global level into a management strategy.
So it really starts to filter down ... and that vision has to permeate the entire institution. It's got to become part of the culture. When I was going through the interview process, they were really intersted in my views — and I'm sure the other candidates' — views around, 'How do you feel about excellence? How do we advance that athletic program? How do we get to another level.' So hearing and seeing their interest in how we do this, that's another step that you see as they move to the next level of organization. They're asking that question, how do you take that global vision and how to translate that within athletics. So I can see that interest.
And you have the real tangible kinds of things. ... We've got to get coaches salaries to a level that's more competitive within the conference and more competitive nationallly. That is tangible evidence that there is a commitment to do things the right way.
AW: I'd imagine you're not going to get to a level of say Jack Parker or Don Lucia, but how close can you get it?
BC: There is a recognition this is a job where coaches can come to UVM and win. It's not a place where you've gotta provide a salary that's so out there because there's not opportunities to realize some of the competitive satisfactions. At Vermont there is an opportunity to come in and win. So that provides you with a leg up where it will be attractive to people.
We know we're not going to be able to make that immediate jump to where you're in the top two or three in the country — that's just not realistic — but I know we're going to be able to get the salary to a level where it is going to be very attractive to very good quality coaches who are interested in coming to a place like Vermont where they'll have an opportunity to win and win a national championship, and where they know hockey is going to be well supported. There's the great community fan base, it's going to be a good place to recruit to, and as people have more success, they're going to be in a better position to renegotiate. So in effect, you really look to getting to those highest levels, not in one jump, but in stages.
AW: Talk about Mike Gilligan's role.
BC: Mike's role is really tracking the facility development, and I think it's a perfect fit for him and for us to have somene who really can spearhead that. He's got great relationship with alumni, and he understands what the needs of a facility are.
There's a couple different components. One is the technical side, understanding and really having ideas around what the facility itself needs. What types of locker rooms, strength training areas ... including the seating pool, what's gonna work, what can the place handle.
AW: There was talk by the new president that it would be a 9,000-seat arena. Is that realistic?
BC: That's something whre you really do need to evaluate what the market can handle. ... There are different ways that you could cut the cake. Nine thousand might be on the large side for some events, but it might fit for others. And can you develop the facility in a way where it really has some flexible seating. For a UVM hockey game, the seating capacity is 6,000, but for other events it's different. The technology today is so completely different from when Gutterson was built, we really don't understand what the possibilites are.
The other side is advocating for the facility, creating the awareness, the need, the urgency where this is something that not only the university needs, but the state needs.
AW: Will there be resistance for replacing such a place as Gutterson, which is considered a great place to watch a game?
BC: When I was in it, I thought, 'This place has such a great feel.' It is such a great college facility. But there are some real inadequacies. It doesn't mean when you build a new place, you can't build it with great character. It doesn't have to be this big, sterile building.
There are some beautiful buildings here in the WCHA, but they just don't have any real character. Whereas there are others that do. So I think if you spend some time and attention to building and designing the place in a way that it has character and that college feel, you can have the best of both worlds.
AW: It's interesting because, in one sense, you are going up from Division II at Minnesota-Duluth, to a Division I school at Vermont. On the other hand, you are leaving the WCHA, which is considered one of the best hockey conferences, for the ECAC. Talk about that shift.
BC: The thing people don't understand or appreciate fully ... Division II in this part of the country fills the same need as I-AA in the East. There are so few Division I schools in this area. ... So in terms of football here, we probably outdraw a lot of I-AA schools in the East, because this is as big as it gets for people in this part of the country.
As far as the hockey piece ... the WCHA, is a very, very strong conference. They've really done an awful lot of positive things in terms of really getting that Final Five tournament to a great level. It now gernerates over a million dollars for the conference. So there's been some real marketing successes, particuarly the Minnesota Wild — that's who runs our Final Five tournament, and they've really done a tremendous job.
So I'm hopeful the experience that I gained here and just having seen what's happened with this conference, I'm able to be helpful and bring some ideas to the ECAC, because I'm sure there is a real sincere intersted in growing the sport in that part of the country and making that conference as strong as it can be.
AW: Is Vermont still a good fit in the ECAC?
BC: One of the things that is the priority for when I arrive is — I've talked with the staff already about this — we're going to jump right into a comprehensive review and development of a strategic plan for the program. That really needs to happen before any of us can start to talk about whether the fit is the right one or the wrong one. We need to get in there and look at this in 16 different directions and get a strong sense from the data that's there where the entire athletic program needs to go and what we need to do with it, and what kind of vision we have for it, and start with that kind of foundation rather than pick out individual issues or teams.
AW: With the timing of your hiring and Mike Gilligan's departure, inevitably people wondered whether Mike was forced out. Do you care to set the record straight on that?
BC: When I was on campus for my intereview, Mike asked to speak with me and he told me at that point that he was thinking about this. He said, 'I don't want you walking in first day on the job and you find out then that the hockey coach is going to be leaving.' So he told mne at that point that he was seriously thinking about it, and he wanted to give me a head's up before things got much further down the path with me.
Then when I was on campus for the announcement, we had another conversation. And he told me then he was going to be making his mind up within a few days, but he wanted to have that conversation again just to see how I was with it all. And I told him, obviously, it was his decision but I hope like hell he decided to stay on.
AW: So you would have had no problem with him staying?
BC: No, no. But I was really very happy when he told me what he was thining about doing. Thinking about leaving coaching but staying on with the department. That makes me feel an awful lot better that he's going to be there to be a transition with the new staff. Plus, the kind of activity that he's going to be invovled with is going to be a very important part of where the program goes.
AW: Is it nice, though, to be able to pick your own coach.
BC: It's one of those things, it has its upside and its downside. The bottom line is, that's the hand that's been dealt ... and you've got to deal with it in the best way possible.